Skip to main content

Posts

Showing posts from 2012

Mixing Sports and Business

In the last two days I've devoured every article in the Washington Post about the Nationals painful and epic defeat on Friday night in the NLDS. It was a tough way to see the season end, there's no doubt about that.

(from wallyg on Flickr)
These articles make it clear that there are a lot of people emotionally invested in professional sports. I think they sometimes they forget that, ultimately, Major League Baseball is big business. Each team is a major corporation and the league itself is an organization governed by a bunch of executives. The television networks that show the games are under contract with the team owners and the games aren't usually available to those without cable.

This is why it can be so hard to be a fan in this game. It's the multi-millionaire and billionaire owners that call most of the shots. They get to decide how much they're willing to spend on players. They get to decide who to hire as the CEO of the company. They get to decide how much t…

Businesses as Third Places

Jessica Sidman has a well-written story about Yola, the recently-shuttered yogurt/coffee shop in Dupont Circle. I'll admit that I didn't go to Yola especially frequently, though I don't work too far away. That said, it was the kind of business that people frequently say they want in their neighborhood - a warm, inviting shop with lots of seating and better than average food and drinks.

(from Brother O'Mara on Flickr)
One of the store's partners is surprisingly open about the experience and the hardships that came with it. It's a story that makes me feel pessimistic about doing something as entrepreneurial as opening my own coffee shop in the city. She explains the problem about as explicitly as anyone ever has:
"We are a $5 average check size business in a close to $10,000-a-month rent location. It just doesn’t work. The math doesn’t work.”  It's easy for an observer to sit back and recount the ways the business was a failure, or how it was doomed from t…

A Defense of Schlepping

Tess Wilson has a great article at Apartment Therapy that points out the benefits of schlepping stuff around the city. Her post focuses mostly on the fact that schlepping is good exercise, which it is; but I'd argue that it's even more than that. It's a seeming inconvenience that has plenty of unintended benefits.

Take grocery shopping for example. There are plenty of people who will argue until they're blue in the face that grocery shopping without a car is an unacceptable burden in life. I wouldn't take it that far, but I would agree that it's less convenient and more challenging to do than if you have access to a car.

(from william couch on Flickr)
I don't have a car, so when I do it, it means I have to make strategic shopping choices. I don't buy whole watermelons or 12-packs of Pepsi because those things are really heavy and bulky and difficult to transport without a car. To some people this is a great tragedy.

What would life be without sugary soda…

"Devil Wagons"

The transportation exhibit at the Smithsonian's American History museum is one of my favorites. It's as much about the evolution of transportation technology as it is about the history of suburban sprawl. It's a pretty balanced approach to the issue too.

(from gGraphy on Flickr)
Last weekend I stumbled across this little nugget in the exhibit:
Americans Adopt the Auto

Cars Everywhere?

For automobiles to become a permanent fixture on the American landscape - rather than simply a toy for the rich - people needed to be convinced that they were reliable, useful, appropriate, and even necessary. In the early years of motoring, not all Americans were convinced that the new "devil wagons" were here to stay. But as people came to value the convenience of the car, and as they adapted it to their own needs, cars became a significant part of everyday life. This statement is enlightening because today we take for granted that cars rule the urban landscape, and in fact, the &qu…

Legal Gray Areas

There's a rant over at the Washington Post about towing companies in the DC area. You can click through and read the article, but it sums up like this: Person can't find a legal parking space in a busy neighborhood. Person decides to park illegally instead. Person leaves the car unattended for ten minutes and car gets towed for being parked illegally. Person gets very upset. Person calls the situation "predatory". The end.

(from roujo on Flickr)
The article makes every indication that the author knew that parking in the space was illegal. There's also nothing to lead the reader to believe the towing company acted in violation of the government's regulations. If there were evidence that the towing company acted illegally, I think it would be more than fair to call this "predatory", but let's examine the situation for how it's described.

This point in particular caught my eye.
So we pulled into one of about four empty spaces outside a dry clean…

Tourists Are Major Capital Bikeshare Funders

The Washington DC economy benefits heavily from tourism. Some businesses benefit directly while others take advantage of tourism spillovers. Is Capital Bikeshare in the same boat? I took a look at membership and trip data for one year from April 1, 2011 through March 31, 2012 to get to the answer.

Capital Bikeshare offers a variety of products, from one-day memberships up to annual memberships. Annual and monthly members (registered users) have plastic red keys that allow them to access the system. Everyone else (casual users) use their credit card to access the system for short-term periods. Though not perfect, this makes a nice proxy for locals (registered users) and tourists (casual users).

More short-term memberships were sold during the 12 month study period than for full-memberships. But since full-memberships cost more they ultimately generated more estimated revenue*.

Click to Enlarge
*This is a good time to mention that these are not actual revenue figures. These are estimates…

Taxing Olympians

I stumbled across this article yesterday on the Americans for Tax Reform website. It's about how the IRS can (in theory) tax Olympics athletes who win medals, on the basis that those medals are taxable as income. The conclusion of the post is: isn't it outrageous?!

(from Shazz Mack on Flickr)
The problem with the simple analysis is that it assumes an absolute worst-case scenario. In other words, they present a chart that shows the tax costs for gold, silver and bronze medals, assuming that the winner falls into the 35% tax bracket ($388,000 per year and above).

Now, some athletes certainly fall into this bracket. The NBA players on the men's basketball team are filthy rich, so it's hard to feel bad that the tax falls on them. A few other high profile athletes, like Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps get big bonuses from their sponsors and aren't hard-up for money. But I suspect that many American Olympians are of modest means and probably don't pay a 35% marginal ta…

The Most Important Project You Don't Know About

Earlier in the month a series of floods wreaked havoc on the Bloomingdale neighborhood in DC. It was the result of a variety of factors, including weather, geography and out-of-date infrastructure. In short, when it rains really hard and really quickly, water flows downhill into Bloomingdale but there's not enough sewer capacity to carry it away.

(from bhrome on Flickr)
The solution? A multi-billion (with a B) dollar project by the water utility to install a sewer tunnel from Bloomingdale to the water-treatment plant on the other side of town (among a handful of other things).

This is not the kind of "sexy" infrastructure project that typically gets a lot of attention. The Silver Line to Dulles is an expensive project  that a lot of people have an opinion on. Capital Bikeshare is a much less expensive project that gets a lot of attention. But a storm sewer?.. it's hard to get people excited about that.

It's probably nonetheless one of the most important infrastruc…

Small Business Culture

Earlier in the month Kojo Nnamdi spent an hour discussing the challenges that small businesses have in DC when trying to find affordable retail space. Small business have a tough time, even when they can afford to rent space, because landlords are often more interested in leasing to "credit" tenants who they believe are less likely to go delinquent on the lease.

One of the callers into the show brought up the small business culture in Portland, Oregon. This is something I intended to blog last winter, after I spent 4 days in the city.


(from dennis.tang on Flickr) 

 People in Portland absolutely love small businesses. It's like there's something in the air or the water there. They will go out of their way to patronize a small business in lieu of a chain business. I'm not sure there's another city where Powell's could not just survive but thrive, for example.

I went to one great little coffee shop in downtown Portland (it was not Stumptown, but it was a few bl…

On Being a Food Snob

Recently somebody accused me of being a food snob. This was the first time in my life this ever happened and frankly, caught me by surprise. Being called a food snob isn't a title that most people want. Being a called a snob of any kind isn't a title that most people want. When it comes to food though, this is completely backwards - people should strive to be food snobs.

(from Alph on Flickr)
What does that mean exactly? It doesn't mean that you go to fancy restaurants owned by iron chefs. Hell, it doesn't mean that you ever even go out to restaurants. Being a food snob means caring about your food, its freshness, how it's prepared and cooked, and what impact it has on your health.

A person who eats at McDonalds, buys boxed Kraft macaroni and cheese and makes sandwiches with white bread and American cheese wouldn't be considered a food snob.

A person who shops at farmers markets, buys fresh fruits and vegetables, and makes garden salads at home with feta cheese …

The Utility of Cars in Cities

As part of NPR's new Cities project, they recently aired a story about the "war on cars" on All Things Considered. It's kind of a stale topic in my opinion; but alas, here I am re-hashing it, so I'll admit to being complicit.

(from karen.j.ybanez on Flickr)
Now, I don't own a car. Neither do many of my friends. But almost all of us drive. How's that possible? Well... there's rental cars and car-sharing, to start. Not owning a car is not the same as never driving, a point that's frequently misapplied in these debates.

The bigger problem with this discussion is that it's framed as all-or-nothing when it's actually quite nuanced. Let's dissect a not-very-good argument from Chuck Thies, who's made some not-very-good arguments on this topic in the past. Here's his quote from the NPR story:
Take a look around. Right here, I see four bikes, five or six pedestrians; and I see, what, 50 cars? This is the predominant form of transportatio…

Drinking Beer as Presdient

Tom Rotunno has a fascinating article about beer and President Obama. I didn't realize for example, that the President is the first to home brew inside the White House (as opposed to at his personal home). Even more interesting is how beer plays into campaigning. While in Ohio recently, Obama drank Bud Light. Rotunno writes...
Marketing consultant Laura Ries thinks Bud Light is a good fit for the President.

“Going with Bud Light is a safe choice and is probably the best choice,” says Ries. “Bud says 'leader.' I think it is still believed by Joe SixPack across the nation to be an 'all-American' beer. Even though it is owned by a foreign conglomerate now, most people don’t think about it. The average person thinks of Budweiser as an American choice.”This is an interested tidbit about American business and politics. Even though both Bud Light and Miller Light are owned by foreign companies (InBev of Belgium and SABMiller of the UK) the typical Joe SixPack either doesn…

Creating Jobs (that People Hate)

I don't know how I missed this one. Cleveland's casino opened just under a few months ago and already there are reports that the new employees are quitting in droves. Well, OK, that's not all that surprising on the surface. The service industry is a sucky place to work. The pay probably isn't very good. The hours probably aren't very good. The customers probably feel entitled and treat the employees like dirt. I get it - I worked enough summers earning minimum wage at an amusement park to know the reality of these jobs.

(from Erik Daniel Drost on Flickr)
But the thing is... Cleveland's casino was supposed  to be a godsend to the city because of the 1,600 new jobs it was going  to "create" in a city where people are desperate for jobs. More than a few times I heard a phrase that went something like "the people who really hit the jackpot at the new casino are the people who found jobs after being unemployed."

These clearly aren't the kinds …

Spontaneously Planned Eating

My last year of college, I was infamously bad at cooking, and more of my meals than I should probably admit were enjoyed at local watering holes. On-face, eating out seems way more expensive than cooking, but I had a solution to that... I would only order the daily specials at local restaurants. For example, 40-cent wing Mondays, half-price pizza Tuesdays, or $5 burger and fries Thursdays.

(from Kevin H. on Flickr)
A friend of the blog once asked, "what if you don't feel like eating pizza on Tuesdays or Burgers on Thursdays?" It caught me off guard, because I never really ate meals based on what I felt like (sans for the occasional evening visit to a restaurant). It was always just based on what I figured I could afford.

These days, I cook a lot more; but my meals are still meticulously planned. Every Wednesday I get the Harris Teeter circular, I look at the best sales and make a meal plan based on that. On Friday I get the weekly "e-Vic" email, make adjustment…

Urban and Suburban Farming

Last weekend I read a very interesting article by Hannah Wallace in Spirit Magazine during my flight to Cleveland. The story is about Joe Cimperman, a Cleveland city councilman who is taking urban farming to the next level.

(from eustatic on Flickr) 
Urban farming is a hot topic in the Rust Belt, where cities have an unfortunate amount of vacant property. If vacancy is inevitable and proper development is hopeless, planting some produce on the land seems like a better use of the land than anything else.

The benefits of having locally grown food seem obvious and have been documented; and when it comes to vacant lots, it's usually local laws that are stopping farming from happening. Zoning, for example, might permit a land parcel to be used only for residential purposes. An urban farm would be considered an agricultural or industrial use, and thus would be illegal. Politicians like Joe Cimperman are slowly changing this.

In cities where land is expensive and vacant lots are more the …

Criminality and Motoring

Daniel Ikenson has an interesting post over at Cato-at-Liberty about the ordeal he went through after his car was towed in DC. It's written as a story about big bad government and municipal incompetence. But it's also full of ideological holes that are worth noting.

(from tvol on Flickr)
The author opens by describing the parking situation near Nationals Park:
About three blocks from the stadium, there were plenty of legal parking spots along the street and signs indicating how to pay for parking by telephone. It would cost $1.50 per hour or about $10 total – a steal compared to the $30-$40 being charged in the nearby lots. The Pay-by-Phone system was simple enough to use: I registered my tag and my credit card number by phone, and was messaged a “Parkmobile” app to use for loading and reloading the meter from my phone. Sweet and simple! This is curious because a true libertarian would likely believe that the price for parking should be whatever the market can bear. If the l…

House Hunting

After years of living without cable TV, it's now an amenity that my landlord includes in my rent. I usually put on Food Network in the background while doing something else, like writing this blog; but I have caught a few episodes of House Hunters. Turns out, the show is completely phony. That's good to know, but if it weren't, the show would make absolutely no sense.

(from sean dreilinger on Flickr)
Think about it. You never see someone lose a house because of a botched inspection, or because they get outbid by another prospective buyer, or because they can't get the right financing. In fact, you never see any other house hunters - it's almost like the three houses they see are temporarily removed from the market and the contestants on their show get their unconditional pick of property.

Anyone who has house hunted in DC or a similarly big city, especially in the rental market, knows just how absurd the show's concept is. The idea of being able to view three p…

Rust Belt Cities: Who's Coming? Who's Going?

Last weekend Angie Schmitt pointed me to an article by Douglas Trattner in Fresh Water Cleveland. The author suggests Rust Belt cities, left for dead, are suddenly booming again. Angie was suspicious of some of the claims and I offered to check it out. Let's start with the article...
Daily, it seems, another cultural sociologist is writing about the current trend of reverse migration -- young creatives fleeing the Coasts in droves in favor of "decaying" industrial cities like Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Detroit. These cities, you see, are appealing because of the decay. That and ironic pleasures like bowling, pierogies, and polka.

Of course, there is enough truth and fiction in that charming narrative to choke a thesis on contemporary demographics. The truth is, young people are moving back to cities like Cleveland, Detroit and Pittsburgh -- and at rates that outpace those of posh suburban zip codes. Offering the promise of a better (cheaper) quality of life -- and yes, t…

Capital Bikeshare's Elevation Challenge

Last week after I posted about Capital Bikeshare's Reverse Rider Rewards experiment, Mr. T in DC tweeted this in response:

@bikeshare needs to better incentivie uphill trips to Ward 1! There's some anecdotal evidence that suggests that people are riding CaBi bikes downhill to get to wherever they're going, and then taking the bus or Metro back uphill, rather than trying to huff it and puff it on one of the heavy red bikes. It's something that was discussed last year on Kojo. In theory, it makes perfect sense.

I dug into the data and found that it's happening to an extent - more people are riding CaBi bikes down hills than back up them; but it's not happening at quite the exaggerated rate that some people seem to suggest.

The truth is that the majority of Capital Bikeshare trips start and end at about the same elevation. I looked at 327,680 trips taken from January through March of 2012 in the District (unfortunately I had to exclude Arlington due to issues with…

The Ultimate Rent Control

I recently heard homeownership described by an academic professor as "the ultimate rent control". It's an interesting perspective, and one that's generally true, especially in high-cost cities where rents are rising with seemingly no end in sight. When it comes to affordable housing, buying a home, at the very least, means locking in a monthly payment that will be roughly the same for the next 30 years, regardless of how the price of anything else in the economy changes.

(from allaboutgeorge on Flickr)
The reason I say this perspective is unique is because people often talk about homeownership in less practical, more idealized ways. Take this blurb from an NPR story on the subject, for example.
The economic hammer has fallen especially hard on 20somethings — part of the so-called Millennial Generation or Gen Y born roughly between 1975 and 1995. Plagued by high unemployment, many have had to delay careers, marriage and having children. And the idea of owning a home is…

Rebalancing Capital Bikeshare Stations

Capital Bikeshare is great, and I really love having it. This recent post over at DCist, however, reminds me that unbalanced stations are still one of the system's major flaws. I've experienced both full and empty stations, as I'm sure anyone who uses the system enough has or will.

(from Mr. T in DC on Flickr)
When I first heard about CaBi, my initial reaction was "won't everyone just ride them downtown in the morning and back out in the afternoon?" The person who was telling me about Capital Bikeshare completely brushed off the concern, saying "oh don't worry, there are guys with trucks to move them around".

Of course, guys with trucks can only do so much and can only move so quickly, and there are currently no other mechanisms in place to rebalance stations. Last summer there was an experiment called "Reverse Rider Rewards" that was designed to encourage CaBi members to rebalance stations during the morning rush hour. It ran during Ju…

Where College Graduates Don't Stay

Sabrina Tavernise has an article in the New York Times about the growing educational divide in American cities. I'm glad that she chose to highlight Dayton, Ohio because I know a ton of people in DC that went to school in Dayton. For that matter, I know more people in DC who went to college in Dayton than any other metro area of a similar size. There is a huge University of Dayton alumni network in DC; and their alumni take a lot of pride in it. But the flip side of it is that all of those grads are no longer living in Dayton.

(from Jordan Weaver on Flickr)
I think Tavernise's opening paragraph is easily misinterpreted.
As cities like this one try to reinvent themselves after losing large swaths of their manufacturing sectors, they are discovering that one of the most critical ingredients for a successful transformation — college graduates — is in perilously short supply.  But wait, who exactly is in short supply? Is it people graduating from college in that city? Or is it …

Gasoline Isn't That Expensive

Over the weekend someone made an interesting case to me. This person argued that when you think about the total cost of driving, gasoline isn't actually that expensive, relatively speaking. It was an interesting point-of-view, because when I hear people complaining about how it's so expensive to drive, usually they complain about the price of gasoline.

(from TheTruthAbout on Flickr)
There are really only two costs that every driver must always pay every month... there's the cost of insurance, and the cost of fuel.

Let's say I have a pretty run-of-the-mill insurance policy in DC. It's better than state minimum liability coverage but not quite comprehensive coverage either. $80 per month sounds reasonable for this sort of policy. Now let's assume I drive a pretty average car that gets 30 miles per gallon on average and is completely paid off.  Let's also assume that gasoline costs $4 per gallon. That means that for the same $80 I could drive my car 600 miles.…

Wi-Fi is the Free Parking of the Coffee World

When it comes to Wi-Fi in coffee shops, I've had a pretty strong shift in opinion over the past few years. If you can remember, this blog used to be written entirely from a single coffee shop in Cleveland.

During that time I spent a lot time in that coffee shop. I made friends with many of the baristas. I made friends with the owners. And I spent a lot of money. A friend of the blog calculated  that I was on pace to spend over a thousand dollars at that coffee shop by the end of the year, and I was fine with that, because it was my favorite local business. If that shop hadn't been friendly to me bringing my laptop into the store, I still would have gone their occasionally, but would have stuck to making most of my coffee at home.

(from M.V. Jantzen on Flickr)
The reason my opinion has changed is because my environment has changed. Coffee shops in DC tend to be busy, crowded, and because of high rents, they can't afford big swaths of open space for dozens of tables and couch…

Rising Rents

When it comes to the housing market, there are a lot of "supply side" advocates who argue that housing is expensive because there's not enough of it. I've been skeptical of this, at least on-face. I think the issue is more complicated than simply building more houses and convincing people is even harder still. I posed this question to Matthew Yglesias earlier in the week.
If we accept the premise that density is desirable, how does building more housing units actually lower rents in practice?...  Let's say we build more housing in DC's core by removing the height limit and the average rent in the metro area decreases; but rents in the core increase (due to higher demand for density) while the rents on the fringe decrease (due to greater overall supply of housing in the market). Has the policy succeeded because some housing in the overall market is now less expensive? Or has it failed because now the only affordable housing is the housing with the highest tran…

Taxi Cab Deregulation

I've been in DC for about 2 years. During that time I've ridden in 9 taxi cabs. All of those rides have been business-related. I've never used my own money to hire a cab, and I don't plan on doing it anytime soon. I've had far too many negative cab experiences to make me want to do it again. I know of others who feel similarly.

Robert Samuels has a great article in the Post abut the mayhem that occurs at Union Station after midnight as people arriving on late-night trains try to get a ride home. I'd add that this phenomenon is not limited only to Union Station. My understanding is that trying to get a cab ride on a Friday or Saturday night is nearly impossible if you aren't in a group or if your destination isn't in a "choice" neighborhood.

(from afagen on Flickr)
During the late night hours, DC doesn't have taxi dispatchers or inspectors, so many cabbies make a calculated risk to disobey the law. In a sense, this creates a very interestin…

Revisiting Degree Density

Richard Florida's interview with Jonah Lehrer over at the Atlantic Cities about "creative density" got me thinking about the work I did on "degree density" back in 2010. The concept that Lehrer describes is relatively simple: lots of like minded people in close proximity to each other drives creativity because these people can bounce ideas off of each other and learn from each other.

Lehrer talks about David Bryne of the Talking Heads:
David Byrne, after all, wasn’t influenced by the Latin rhythms of some distant musician. Instead, Byrne was seduced by his local dance clubs, blasting those songs he could hear from the sidewalk. It is the sheer density of the city - the proximity of all those overlapping minds - that makes it such an inexhaustible source of creativity. A major flaw with my 2010 analysis is that it focused on entire cities and counties. It ignored the fact that the size of cities is somewhat arbitrary and that density is more of a neighborhood phe…

The Art and Science of Forecasting

On a recent Friday afternoon I received an email sent to a group of people that suggested going to a DC United game the following Saturday. The emailer wrote "weather looks like it's going to be great!" with a link to a 10-day forecast showing sun and mild temperatures with a 20% chance of rain. 8 days went by and the weather on that Saturday turned out to be less great than anticipated.

(from Jorge Quinteros on Flickr)
I'm really glad Greg Postel published this post over at Capitol Weather Gang about the accuracy of advanced forecasting. It's worth a read, but if you're not going to click through, the short-version of is that Greg uses empirical data and shows  that forecasting accuracy decreases the farther you get from the actual date in question. It's not a surprising finding, but one that's worth re-enforcing.

Capitol Weather Gang is the best weather source around. The reason it's so great is because they not only give a forecast, but explain …